Pittsburgh Loses Aaron Smith for Year, Steelers Scramble to Fill Role for Now

Jonathan Cyprowski@@JCyprowskiCorrespondent IOctober 14, 2009

CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 27:  Aaron Smith #91 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is pictured during the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 27, 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It’s official. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith has been placed on the injured reserve for the second time in three seasons.

After missing the better portion of the 2007 season with a torn bicep, Smith suffered a partial tear of his right rotator cuff this past Sunday in Detroit.

The partial tear of Smith’s rotator cuff was found during an evaluation Tuesday morning with team doctors. Smith took the next 24 hours to weigh his options between having surgery on his injured shoulder and trying to play through it.

Smith made the decision to have surgery this morning, and according to the doctor’s prognosis, Smith will be out for up to three months.

While he may be able to play through the injury, playing would have put Smith in danger of worsening his existing condition to a career-threatening level. 

Unfortunately for Smith and the Steelers, surgery means three months on the rack. While the decision could not have been an easy one for Smith and the Steelers, it’s the one that may allow Smith to play another couple years before riding off into the sunset.

At age 33, Smith is on the other side of his prime physically, but his play has in no way mirrored his age.

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Aaron Smith may be the most underrated player at his position in the National Football League. Essential to the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme, Smith’s presence on the defensive line has been a consistent force since being drafted in 1999.

Smith’s standout pass rush ability in a defensive system that is designed to highlight the team’s linebackers is overshadowed only by his ability to stop the run. He had accumulated 13 tackles and two sacks in the Steelers’ first five games this season. No small loss for the defending champs, who are trying to sort out some major defensive issues.

Perhaps the reasons why his coaches and teammates respect and admire him is best personified by the fact the All-Pro is willing to play special teams. Playing on a field goal-blocking team, Smith blocked a kick that saved the game for the Steelers against the Titans during the opening week of the season.

The loss of Smith is somewhat of a concern for the Steelers on a number of levels.

First, the Steelers are losing one of their better defenders. While the defensive linemen in Pittsburgh do not put up some of the huge numbers that other players do playing in a 4-3 scheme, their responsibilities are often more important than their counterparts around the league. Smith’s production is something the Steelers are going to find it hard to do without.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the Steelers have no clear-cut replacement for Smith at this point. Travis Kirschke is the odds-on favorite to replace Smith in the starting lineup as of right now. The 13-year veteran has been a career backup and special teams player so far, but has proven to be a capable backup when called upon to do so.

The team would like to have seen first round draft pick Ziggy Hood be ready to step in at this point, but head coach Mike Tomlin has made it very clear that Hood is not being considered as a potential starter or full-time replacement for Aaron Smith.

With Smith out and Hood not ready to play in his stead, the Steelers are going to have some major decisions to make in the days ahead. Look to see Kirschke become the starter while splitting time with Hood and right defensive end Nick Eason, who has the ability to slide over and play both positions.

Don't be surprised if the Steelers accelerate the process with Hood in the next few weeks in order to see if he will be able to take over the position in the second half of the season.

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